Third World Canada (feature)Photo: Temporary Vandalism, by Byron Barrett
Canada has begun to suffer from malaises that we once attributed to "poor" countries.
When I was twenty-one years old, I studied for five months in Bogotá, Colombia. I made my first trip to South America in the hope of improving my Spanish, seeing thrilling landscapes and experiencing the societies where many of my favourite writers came from. With breezy complacency, I anticipated gaining a knowledge of what we then referred to as the “Third World.” By this, we meant poor countries which, if they were lucky, would some day become like us. Thirty years later, this is not precisely what has happened. If various countries in South America—Brazil foremost among them—now enjoy some of our privileges of acquisition and stability, we have begun to suffer from malaises that we once attributed to them.
In Bogotá, I refined my vision of the Third World. As I learned in this city of—at that time—five million people, Third World societies were characterized by rapid, uncontrolled urbanization, a chaotic sprawl that obliged people to spend hours in clogged traffic to get to work. Public transportation was shoddy. Pollution hung in the thin mountain air. Residents of the overcrowded, unplanned city endured exorbitant waiting times for health care; infant mortality rates were high; street crime was rampant. It was clear that Colombia was not innately poor, but rather that a disproportionate quantity of its abundant resources were the property of a tiny elite who disdained their fellow citizens. The middle class was small and, as I discovered by boarding with a suburban middle-class family, nervous, unsure of its values and politically weak. Colombia had a functioning democratic system, with two political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, who often alternated in power. In spite of these democratic mechanics, legislators did not address the country’s social divides: both parties catered first to the foreign companies that exploited Colombia’s mineral and petroleum wealth. Drug trafficking, though present, was not as prevalent then as it became later; yet Colombia in the early 1980s had three guerrilla movements fighting against the government, and a thuggish, omnipresent military that imposed curfews, random identification checks and frisking to keep urban citizens in line (reliable reports claimed that they did much worse in the countryside).
My impressions of Colombia three decades ago were resuscitated, to my dismay, by my return to Canada after six months in Western Europe. Naturally, Canada is not Colombia: half our population does not live below the poverty line, our crime rate is low, we have no home-grown insurgent movement and our military has been exercising its brawn on Afghans and Libyans, not on our own citizens. Yet, by comparison with Western Europe, Canada feels “Third World.” This is a new feeling; when I’ve returned to Canada from Europe in the past, I’ve sensed that I was entering a more spacious, less settled land, yet one socially on a par with Europe. Now there is an undeniable sense of moving down a rung on the ladder. As the shuttle bus that was taking me home left Pearson Airport in Toronto, it ran into the permanent snarl of traffic on Highway 401 that makes moving in and out of the city a time-consuming ordeal. The driver zigzagged through the cape of grey-brown smog onto other highways, all them packed and stagnant. In Europe I had whisked between cities in high-speed trains that siphoned traffic off the highways and had shuttled around cities on superbly coordinated bus and subway links. In Europe, Montreal and Toronto would be two hours apart by train (rather than five), as is the case for Rome and Florence or London and Paris; here it often takes me more than two hours to reach Toronto from Guelph, Ontario, barely 80 kilometres away.
The ugly landscape outside the airport, with huge suburbs thrown senselessly into the middle of fields, far from services or transport links, was more reminiscent of the chaos of suburban Bogotá, where I had lived as a student, than of the integrated suburbs I visited in Hamburg, Munich or Barcelona. In Canada, as in the Third World, more and more people are squeezing into a few big cities; in Europe, a more equitable distribution of resources ensures that provincial life retains its appeal. Similarly, my initial conversations with Canadians revealed a nervous uncertainty that recalled the timorous burghers of Bogotá: they wanted free health care but they didn’t want to offend the free market; they wanted low taxes and they wanted generous social programs; they didn’t know what they stood for. A few nights earlier, on the radio in Paris, I’d heard a conservative, Christian French politician defend social equality, the welfare state and free, secular public education with a vigour that would make the NDP blush. These rights were the foundations of the nation; the politician’s fiscal and social conservatism operated within this framework. No corresponding sense of national values was evident in Canada. The results were obvious: while Europe felt comfortable and egalitarian in spite of having suffered during the recent economic recession, Canada was alternately profligate and squalid. During our stay in Europe, my partner and I fell ill twice, once in Paris and once in Munich. Both times we received health care of a swiftness and efficiency that would be difficult to imagine in Canada, where our lacklustre health system is ranked 30th in the world and our fast-rising infant mortality rate has almost reached the level of those of much less prosperous countries such as Hungary or Poland. As was the case of Colombia thirty years ago (and likely still today), our elite pays scant attention to the problems of most citizens; and our political system, giving first priority to the exploitation of our petroleum and minerals, is unresponsive to social issues. Shortly after my return, I read that in 2009, 3.8 percent of Canadian households controlled 67 percent of the country’s financial wealth. In 1977, four years prior to my trip to Bogotá, the richest 1 percent of Canadians had controlled only 7.7 percent of our wealth. In those days, prior to the NAFTA-driven transformation of our economic and social model, Colombia’s inequalities were a shock to a young Canadian. Today it is Europe’s equality, efficiency and moral self-confidence that feel shocking.